By Michael Hirsch,
Secondary School Principal at KIS International School
Although the media frequently decries the state of schools today, the reality is that more schools in more countries are educating more children, frequently to a higher standard than ever before. More students are also going to university- which leads students to question how can they make their application stand out from all of the other students applying?
In the past, extra-curricular activities largely existed to build a sense of school community and to act as a hook to keep some of the less academic students in school. This is still true today in many schools, but in the more progressive schools extra-curriculars mean much more. Extra-curriculars offer a way for students to explore their interests, to apply skills and concepts from class in a real-life setting, and to become a well-rounded person.
One of the biggest benefits of the International Baccalaureate for parents is that the programme requires students to complete experiences that make them look attractive to universities. Students at non-IB schools have to exert a great deal of initiative to seek out or create special types of opportunities to match the experiences of an IB student, and their schools in many cases may even stifle this initiative. At KIS we expect all students participate in community service, organize their own events, develop leadership and teamwork skills, and participate in the arts or athletics.
IB schools and other progressive schools also approach extra-curricular activities in a different way from non-IB or more traditional schools. At KIS we have a much more process oriented approach, putting an emphasis on creating ways for students to grow intellectually, emotionally and in their ability to lead and take on serious responsibility. One example of how this difference manifests is through Student Council functions, as at a traditional or non-IB school, the Student Council is primarily a social club that organizes social functions and charity activities. At a progressive school and/or IB school, the Student Council is an opportunity to engage in leadership, to develop programmes and policies to address student needs, and to negotiate and collaborate with adults in school to best serve students. At KIS, Student Councils have written their own constitution, engaged in campaigns with speeches, learned how to set and manage agendas and meetings, created a recycling programme, participated in designing and selecting the new school uniforms, and worked with school administrators to develop a policy to decrease waste from school printers.
Extra-curricular programmes should be fun and should help build a sense of community at a school, but they can be more than that too. Parents should encourage their children to participate in extra-curricular programmes that fit their interests, build on their strengths, and sometimes address their weaknesses. Students must show initiative and take full advantage of the existing opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge. The key to the ideal extra-curricular experience is that it can’t be faked. It must be an authentic experience, whatever it is, where the student was committed, worked hard, and truly learned something. The student should be able to communicate about what made their experience unique and about how it makes them better prepared for the challenges of the future.
Progressive schools and involved parents help children to gain essential, non “extra”, experiences that prepare students for life, with the added bonus that it helps them get into the university of their choice. Universities and the employers of the future aren’t looking for robots who have memorized millions of facts, but instead are looking for dynamic individuals who are life-long learners. They prefer applicants who can work with other people, who apply academic learning to solving real-world problems, manage their time and achieve work-life balance. Students who are toiling away at cram schools to get perfect scores on their exams face a losing battle – all of the applicants have exceptional results, so it is hard for them to stand out based upon statistics alone. Students who take a more balanced approach and who explore their interests and passions through well-managed extra-curricular programs take their fate into their own hands as they now control their narrative. Instead of merely presenting a list of statistics to schools, they now get to tell their own story about who they are, what their dreams are, their uniqueness, and their valuable accomplishments.